This morning I found a copy of the chart the Foreign Services Institute uses to grade the comparative difficulty of world languages for acquisition by an adult monoglot English speaker.
I have an unusual perspective on this list for an American. I’m a low-grade polyglot; I have spoken three languages other than my birth English and can read a couple others with Google Translate. I have studied comparative linguistics; I know a bit about the morphology and phonology of many of these languages. I have received street-level exposure to over a dozen of them in my extensive travels, and I have a good ear.
So, I’m going to try to add some value to the list with additional notes and comments.
First, the list itself:
Category I: 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours)
Languages closely related to English
Category II: 30 weeks (750 hours)
Languages similar to English
Category III: 36 weeks (900 hours)
Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
Category IV: 44 weeks (1100 hours)
Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
Category V: 88 weeks (2200 hours)
Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers
Generally I think this list is dead on target. I agree with most of it even to the level of which languages should be starred in their category.
Before I launch into specific discussion of the exceptions, a minor caveat that I think I might have a tendency to underweight phonetic difficulty because of my Frodo ear – there are very few phonemes that really throw me for a loop, and I can hear tones with little effort.
That said, here we go:
Arabic should be starred. It is grammatically and phonologically extremely difficult; from my exposure to both I’d say significantly more difficult than Chinese without traditional Chinese writing.
If I were to add a mark for “easy in its category”, I would put that on Spanish and Italian. These are significantly easier than the other Category I languages and (I believe) the easiest of all world languages for English speakers to learn.
Portuguese is a freebie if you learn Spanish and can get used to an odd but relatively consistent shift in the phonology, mainly heavy nasalization of everything.
I think putting German in an intermediate category II above other major European languages in difficulty is very shrewd. Phonology is easy (I can pronounce German with a good accent even though I don’t speak it) but the grammar is significantly more difficult than say, French.
If not for the help German gets from having Indo-European cognates, I think Category III (Indonesian/Malay and Swahili) might be easier than German. These are areal trade languages, quite probably creolized from ancestral trade pidgins, and have retained a simplicity that makes them relatively easily acquired by adult speakers. (English has a similar history.)
Chinese is a strange case. It is indeed brutally difficult in toto, but if you (a) are willing to settle for spoken fluency only, and (b) have a musician’s ear for tone (as I do) I suspect it falls to category IV and possibly to a hard category III. The positional grammar of Chinese is simple and easy to acquire.
Given an “easy” mark I would also rate Polish an easy class IV for an educated English speaker, mainly due to a much heavier infiltration of Latin roots than in other Slavic languages – this make recognizing cognates easier.
Persian/Farsi/Dari rates an “easy” mark in its category due to simple and regular grammar. If I were going to try to grok the Indo/Persian group I think it’s a tossup whether Farsi or Hindi would be the best point of entry.
Lithuanian deserves a star, I think. Phonology isn’t bad but the grammar will break your brain.
Xhosa definitely deserves a star. When the phonology is difficult enough that I have trouble retaining the distinctions, most English-speakers would be lost beyond hope. Clicks and implosives, man!
On the blog where I found this list, a commenter opined that there ought to be a category zero for Esperanto. Yep.